Tennessee vs. Vanderbilt, The Historical: The Yankee Lawyer And The Captain From West Point

Tennesssee head coach Captain Robert Neyland (center) and his staff, Paul Parker (right) and Bill Britton (left). 1926. Photo Univ. of Tennessee Archives.

In 1925, Tennessee hired a young Captain from West Point, Robert R. Neyland, and entrusted him with the task of defeating the South's most dominant program, Dan McGugin's Vanderbilt squad. The two coaches faced each other for the first time in Nov. 1926.

When Robert Reese Neyland took over the Tennessee Volunteers football program in 1926 he was given one explicit edict by the school's president Nathan W. Dougherty: "Even the score with Vanderbilt. Do something about the terrible series standing."

And the series had certainly been terrible for Tennessee up until that point. The Vanderbilt Commodores held an 18-2-2 record against the Volunteers and hadn't lost to their intrastate foe in a decade.

A big reason for the Commodore's stellar gridiron performance was head coach Dan McGugin. The Iowa native played guard at Michigan on Fielding Yost's legendary "point-a-minute" squads of 1901 and 1902. After graduating from Michigan law school in 1904,Vanderbilt hired McGugin to lead their football program on the recommendation of his former head coach.

The former Wolverine didn't waste time getting started. He won his first three games by 60 points each on the way to an undefeated season and a Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association Championship. Over the next decade, Vanderbilt would claim the conference title seven more times.

The Commodores' Dan McGugin.
Photo Vanderbilt University Archives

A master motivator, McGugin was also a gridiron innovator. He is credited with being the first coach to use the onside kick as well as the first to use "pulling guards" to run interference on plays. He promoted his Vandy squads by dominating local teams and playing tough inter-sectional rivalries. The success winning the later against teams such as Harvard, Yale, Michigan and Ohio State gave the South its first fame as a football power.

Famed sportswriter and Vanderbilt alumni Grantland Rice credited McGugin's football renaissance at Vanderbilt as the catalyst for his career.

"I didn't have anything to write about in Nashville until Dan McGugin came to town."

In Knoxville, they were still waiting for something to write about. Until that time Tennessee had been a perennial also-ran in the SIAA with two shining moments in the sun. The Volunteers had run the table in 1914 under Zora G. Clevenger and claimed the conference championship and then went undefeated again in 1916 before shuttering the program for two years due to World War I.

The arrival of Captain Neyland in 1925 wasn't seen as a portent for great change. The campus newspaper even got his name wrong, dubbing him "Albert" rather than "Robert."

The Greenville, Texas native had been a star athlete at West Point before serving in France during World War I. After the war he became an aide to Douglas McArthur, the superintendent of West Point, and undertook duties as an assistant coach on the football team under John McEwan.

Neyland chose to pursue a career in football and in 1925 he was appointed a Professor of Military Science at the Tennessee. For an additional $700 he also became an ends coach on the staff of M.B. Banks, who was on the final year of his contract.

Taking over the head coaching duties for a game against Georgia when Banks was ill, Neyland lead the Volunteers to a 12-7 upset victory. The next year, he was named the head coach and athletic director by Tennessee.

Neyland's plan to completely overhaul the UT football program got off to a rocky start a few months later. Just six players showed up for Spring practice as all the rest were competing in other sports. Neyland ordered the players to practice earning protests from the school's baseball and track coaches. He held his ground and kept the players in his drills.

"If I can't have them as long as I want them, I can't operate," he said. And he eventually got him as long as he wanted them.

Starting that spring, Neyland began applying military principles to coaching, with an emphasis on defense and tactics. Eliminating mistakes would become the hallmark of his Volunteer squads and that came from a relentless focus on the fundamentals of play in practice.

As the1926 season unfolded, the miraculous transformation seemed complete as the Volunteers began destroying opponents with discomfiting ease. By the time the Vanderbilt contest rolled around on Nov. 13, Tennessee had an undefeated 7-0 record that included five shutouts. McGugin's Commodores didn't promise to be a cakewalk. Vanderbilt's record was marred only by a 7-19 home loss at the hands of defending national champion Alabama the second game of the season.

While the Volunteers had outscored their opponents 142-14 up to that point, their offensive onslaught came to an end at "new" Dudley Field in Nashville. Tennessee could only earn a first quarter field goal against their longtime nemeses.

Neyland's vaunted defense turned Vanderbilt back at the goal line three times in the first 15 minutes of play and kept the Commodores off the scoreboard for the whole of the game's first stanza. It didn't last. Vanderbilt went on to score a touchdown in each of the remaining three quarters but missed a single point after to put the final score at 20-3.

"I remember walking into the Vanderbilt clubhouse after the game to congratulate Coach Dan McGugin and his men," Neyland later recalled. "I thought to myself I would much prefer engaging him in hand-to-hand combat. I was that sick over it."

The Volunteers loss to the Commodores would be their only defeat that season. The next year, McGugin defied him again as Tennessee and Vanderbilt battled to a tie, again the only blemish on the Volunteers record.

The breakthrough came in 1928 as Neyland's Volunteers blanked the Commodores 6-0. With that victory the balance of power shifted for good. Tennessee would not lose to Vanderbilt again until 1935. By 1952, the Volunteers had earned a 21-21-3 series tie with their former foes but, by that time, the powerful Crimson Tide squads of Wallace Wade and Frank Thomas had become Tennessee's primary annual concern.

McGugin finished his 30-year career at Vanderbilt in 1934 with a 197-55-19 record. Neyland would eventually rise to the rank of General and finish his coaching career in Knoxville in 1952 with a 173-31-12 record and four national championships.

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